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BEYOND HYDROGEN

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BEYOND HYDROGEN ( beyond-hydrogen )

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back into methanol. In this way, the methanol fuel cell can generate its own fuel. Making the methanol removes carbon dioxide from the air when carbon dioxide is converted into methanol. When you use the methanol as fuel, you convert it back into carbon dioxide. This means you are only add- ing the same amount of carbon dioxide to the air than you removed from the air in the first place, provided you only use methanol made by a fuel cell. Because of this, we say that the system is “carbon neutral.” The Great Plains of the united States and the open ocean are some of the best and windiest places for windmills, but not many people live on the Great Plains, and even fewer live out on the open sea. using windmills and fuel cells to generate methanol fuel could provide us with a way to transport the energy of windmills to places where it can be used. In this scheme, methanol fuel cells might be used not only for powering cars, but also for providing electric- ity to homes. Another problem is that even though carbon dioxide levels Actress Q’orianka Kilcher has become the youngest customer to lease honda’s environmental status symbol, the hydrogen-powered and zero- emissions FcX fuel cell vehicle. Kilcher is the first person ever whose first car runs on hydrogen. she took possession of the FcX on March 7, 2007, in Universal city, california. in the earth’s atmo- sphere are getting higher and higher, CO2 still only makes up less than 1% of the earth’s atmosphere. This means making methanol from atmo- spheric CO2 would be a slow process. Fuel cells might not be able to produce methanol quickly enough to meet demand. Ethanol ethanol is the alcohol that people are most familiar car using a direct methanol fuel cell, because the power is too low. ethanol is infinitely worse, because the C–C bond is very difficult to oxidize. So ethanol fuel cells are not cur- rently practical. The good news is that these conclusions are all dependent on the nature of the cur- rently used catalysts, not the intrinsic proper- ties of the fuels. We face a great challenge to develop new, more efficient catalysts that could revolutionize how we drive, and reduce global warming! Perhaps one of you reading this article will go on to study chemistry and be the one to find this new catalyst. Beyond alcohols Both methanol and ethanol have their advantages and drawbacks. Right now, neither of them is ready to solve our energy needs. It’s possible that in the end, both may find some important use. In fact, other fuels are also being studied, like diesel and hydrides. We may end up with a variety of substances making our fuel cells run. Whatever happens, it will be the result of interesting chemistry waiting to be discovered. REfEREncES Olah, George A., Geoppert, Alain, and Prakash, G. K. Surya. Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy. .Wiley-VCH: Weinheim, Germany, 2006. Sammes, Nigel A., ed. Fuel Cell Technology: Reaching Towards Commercialization. Springer: London, 2006. Minteer, Shelley D. Alcoholic Fuels. CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL, 2006, p. 192. “How Fuel Cells Work,” HowStuffWorks. http:// auto.howstuffworks.com/fuel-cell.htm Mark Michalovic is an education consultant for the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia and is an adjunct professor of chemistry at Camden County College. His most recent ChemMatters arti- cle, “Cell Phones, Coltan, and Civil War” appeared in October 2007. This system isn’t perfect, though. You still need a source of electricity if you want to use the fuel cell to make methanol fuel. This is the same problem scientists run into when they try to make hydrogen fuel from water. One answer might be to use electricity generated by wind power to run methanol fuel cells. A big problem with wind power is you can only transmit electricity a few hun- dred miles using transmission wires due to the resistance to the flow of electricity in the wires. unfortunately, the windiest places, the best places to put windmills, aren’t always close to where people live and use electricity. with, since it is the alcohol in mouthwash, certain medicines, and alcoholic beverages. An ethanol molecule is a little bit more complicated than a methanol molecule, with a formula of C2H5OH. ethanol is already used in plain-old internal combus- tion engines, usually mixed with gasoline in blends like e85. However, using ethanol in a fuel cell would be more efficient. ethanol fuel cells would work a lot like methanol fuel cells, using the following chemical reaction to pro- duce power: c2h5oh+3o2 ➞3h2o+2co2 There is a serious problem with ethanol fuel cells. The Pt catalyst used in hydrogen fuel cells is really excellent, giving basically perfect efficiency in hydrogen oxidation. (The cathode, for oxygen reduction, is less efficient.) Already switching to methanol results in lower efficiencies, since it’s trickier to oxidize a C–H bond than an H–H bond. This reduces the power you can get from metha- nol, so current thinking is that you can’t run a Chemmatters, DECEMBER 2007 1 COuRTeSY OF HONDA MIke CIeSIeLSkI

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